Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Keith the Thief and Helen the Felon

2011 02 08
Marsh Harbour, Abacos

This is a somewhat boring tale of our trip from West End Bahamas to Great Sail Cay.  Normally we would make West End about 8 a.m., clear customs and then head for the Barracuda Shoal.  The careful route is to make for Memory Rock a few miles north of West End and then turn East for a comfortable passage all the way to Great Sail.  For the brave there is a shortcut over the Barracuda Shoal, a narrow winding goatfish path: three nautical miles of shallow water that is easily traversed at high water.  Who can resist a shortcut.

Unfortunately we were delayed in West End when a fellow boat suffered starter problems.  The problems were resolved but the time it took to troubleshoot things lost us the tide.  In fact we approached the Shoal just after low water.  It was a crap shoot whether either of the two boats travelling north could pass.

No it was a fish shoot, fish in a barrel and we were the fish.  There was no depth at all.  Meredith was barely 100 metres into the channel  when we met the first obstacle, or rather our keel did.  Instantly we were aground and immobilized.  The depth sounder gave lie to the charted depths but as reassuring as this was we were still pinned.  

Slowly we fed in rudder maintaining no more than one quarter forward speed.  Slowly we turned, inch by inch, millimetre by millimetre.  Meredith's bow was the minute hand of a giant clock, our stern was the pivot.  Like the minute hand we rotated but we remained fixed at the pivot.  As we turned we eventually arrived at an hour on the clock which suggested we had a spare foot of water on the bow.  Our depth sounder is on the bow.  It is not unusual, but always frustrating, for the instruments to tell us we have lots of depth but to find ourselves butt down  in the mud or worse.

Seeing water at the bow we perceived an opportunity.  The Budget Committee took the wheel and I ran with all due haste to the bow, carrying with me as much mass as I could comfortably handle.  It is, as those who know me are aware, a not inconsiderable avoir dupois.  Once on the bow sprit I began to jump for and aft to get the boat rocking as much as was possible hoping to untether the stern from its perch. 

This proved a depressingly effective technique, testimony yet again of the need for someone aboard Meredith to reduce their calorie intake.  A few short hops and the Budget Committee had us moving ahead slow.  Turning about in the insanely narrow channel we kept clear of further impediments to our forward way as we crept, tail between our legs, back to deep water. 

Unfortunately Okemah Rose, a companion boat which was following close on our stern, carried a bit more keel than did we.  Rather a lot of time was consumed as they extricated themselves from the thousand points, not of light but of hard Bahamian Bank without incurring any damage to their keel.  We could hear Joe the skipper talking to himself "Handsomely now, handsomely" reminding himself that this was a case where gentle probing and persuasion would win the day.

A litigator from Missouri Joe was well acquainted with the careful repartee needed in cross examining an unknown witness, gently nibbling at the edge of the issue while to trying to assess the answer he could expect the all important big question.  Lawyers are loath to ask questions unless they are pretty darn sure they already know the answer.  Sussing out an unknown witness is remarkably similar to the skills needed in extricating yourself from the shallows.  Joe was well prepared.

Gina, Okemah Rose's counterpart to the Budget Committee, was right on the bow giving instructions to the helm attempting to guide the helmsman to safe water.  Alas there was none.  Extrication for Okemah Rose was purchased at the cost of a few heart stopping bumps as keel met hard bottom each strike a minute deducted from their life span.

This being their first sailing visit to Bahamas there was risk of their introduction to this sailing mecca being a bit of a downer.  Not possible with Gina on board.  There is no situation she does not endure with a refreshing sense of wonder and immense humour.

Although new to us we found their company enjoyable to a rare degree.

Once deep water was regained the two boats decided to take the long route to Great Sail Cay which would carry us North to Memory Rock and then eastward to Great Sale.  This added about 14 nautical miles and two and a half hours to our trip.  It was clear we were not going to make Great Sale Cay by end of day.

Approaching Memory Rock, from which we would find clear passage to Great Sail we also approached a largish blue hulled sailboat apparently motoring to the same point as we. 

As the vessel came into better resolution it also deflected its course away from us.  Actually it did far more than this as it entered what appeared to be a large swooping turn.  The turn developed into a full blown circle on whose circumference  the newfound vessel continued like a long distance runner with one foot nailed to the floor. 

You see some odd things on the water and we had distance to make good.  We proceeded on course and concentrated on our entry to the Bahamas Banks. 

"Sailing vessel approaching Memory Rock from the South, this is Excalibur" erupted from the radio.  The statement, simple enough on its face, was delivered with an unusual strength. 

"This is Meredith" we rejoined "Go up one".  As we were speaking on channel 16 this simple instruction set channel 17 as our frequency for discussion.  Among its other virtues channel 17 is a low power channel limiting the number of eavesdroppers to what is otherwise a very public discussion.  Dialing in 17 we were just in time to hear Excalibur's transmission.

"You may be wondering what we are doing" came the call. 

"No, not actually" was my reply.  Hoping for similar favour from others I make it a rule to disregard both abberant and abhorrent behaviour in others.  "Do you require assistance"" I continued honestly hoping not to be delayed further.

"I thought you might wonder what we were doing out here" retorted Excalibur.  His comment met with silence from Meredith so he finished "Our depth sounder will not reset.  We just came in off the ocean and we cannot get it to give us a reading".

Now this was a serious problem.  Entering the Bahamas Banks at Memory Rock a boat faces 60 miles or more of movement through water that often is no more than 8 feet in depth or less.  Without a depth sounder a boat out here will quickly find itself in shallow water and deep trouble.

Excalibur had approached Memory Rock from the Straits of Florida.  Depths in the Straits run to four and five thousand feet and then instantly shallow to thirty.  Sometimes a boat's equipment is overwhelmed: one moment it is getting no return from its sonar burst and then it is hit with an instant and strong response.  

It was recognized at once that there was an opportunity to give aid to the stricken vessel without our having to slow down.  Always alert to self interest we leapt.

"Excalibur, both Meredith and Okemah Rose are making for Great Sail Cay from Memory Rock.  We carry five foot three and six foot keels respectively.  We will be lined up like a parade of elephants and you are welcome to follow us".  You might as well be generous in these situations.  How exactly would I stop the skipper of Excalibur from following me even if that repugnant thought had occurred to me?  Contrary to the view of some of the skippers out here, aboard Meredith we understand that it is not our ocean.

At that moment Excalibur's depth sounder responded to the skipper's efforts to rescusitate it and they were away.

By sundown Meredith and Okemah Rose found themselves well off their destination.  Aboard Meredith we decided to pull off the marked route to Great Sail Cay and drop anchor on the Bahamas Banks.  Okemah Rose joined us.  Excalibur had exited an hour before.

Despite a very trying day aboard Okemah Rose, what with diesel issues and grounding issues and shallow water issues, Gina invited us to dinner aboard their boat.  Politely we declined recognizing that as tired as we felt it was nothing compared to the exhaustion that must reign aboard Okemah Rose.  Not that a little exhaustion would slow Gina down.  .

As dark ascended and enveloped our world we sat in the cockpit.  The breeze was warm, we were surrounded as far as we could see by water and blanketed in stars.  Our only connection to the firmament was found in our imaginations.  We were inspired.

Next day the three boats met at Great Sail Cay where all had anchored.  Invited to drinks aboard Excalibur we met the crew.  "Hi, I'm Keith the Thief" began our host by way of introduction.  "And this is my wife, Helen the Felon."  When the laughter subsided the skipper explained " We left without boat cards but we figured you might remember us this way"

Our three boats enjoyed four days of the most beautiful weather we have experienced in the Bahamas.  We sailed to Allans Pensicola and Green Turtle together sharing much food, drink and good times. 

Excalibur and Okemah Rose are two boats we will enjoy meeting up with if our paths cross again.

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